JEAN VENGUA Engages
Letters to a Young Brown Girl by Barbara Jane Reyes
(BOA Editions, 2020)
Hi, Barbara Jane:
Well, wow, I'm not sure where to start. I think I said in my last email that so far it had been a "powerful" read, and that certainly stayed with me up to the very end of the text. I wasn't reading it in any sense of "evaluation," though; I was being selfish, reading it subjectively, to see how it affected me, what it made me see, feel, and hear. And I was curious about how "Letters to a Young Brown Girl" would play out to this older pinay reader, or to older pinays in general -- even though you did not aim the book at that population.
I also included, throughout the mss., notes that I made while reading, again, mostly subjective responses. [Editor's Note: Some annotation examples from reading the first poem "Brown Girl Fields Many Questions":
If you want to know what we are whose body parts are scattered to the winds, dispersed as heirloom seeds into the beaks, stomachs, and droppings of migratory birds, broken through our clear film of rage to leaf and fruit, no matter what the territory or terrain,
To which Jean responds: “I like the "scattered...heirloom seeds" metaphor... and that you've got them coming out of "bird beaks, stomachs, and droppings of migratory birds..." :-)
“v. In which “if,” is the operative word, the contingent term, “in case that,” “on the condition that,” “despite the possibility that,” “even though,”
To which Jean responds: “I'm hearing the teacher in you... your experience of talking about issues with your students.”]
I'm not going to mention every section here, but these are a few thoughts that arose in the process of reading:
The "Brown Girl Fields Many Questions" section: I think it's brilliant you begin w/Bulosan in this interrogative way -- the pinoy writer that many white and non-white (e.g., Asian Am) teachers use to fulfill their multicultural/diversity requirements, and stop there (or at least that seemed to be what I saw in the 1990s when I was teaching). And while much of your mss., as a whole, elicits strong emotions in me, I like that it begins with this urge to examine & question such interactions, the careless (or targeted) and simplistic/stereotypical inquiries that we endure.
The "Brown Girl Beginning" and esp. "Brown Girl Breaking" sections played out like a horror story to me; I needed those two lines at the end: "Remember to arm yourself, remember to take a break. / And by any means necessary, remember not to look back." I've had my "don't look back" experience. However, many years later, one does look back. Certain experiences don't let go of you. Letters, and particularly this section, made me aware that a lot of years have gone by in my life, and that there are still buried issues, bones to be excavated. Holy crap. Maybe I knew this already, but Letters brought some things into sharper relief.
There was anger/rage and satire, as well as empathy, in your words, but I was also struck by the amount of grief, just pure sadness (or so it seemed to me). I also liked that there was so much acknowledgement of the variety and breadth of experience and perspectives that we all go through. I see, throughout, language that is stretching out, embracing; kapwa as "sanctuary of shared selves," indeed.
The mix-tape section brought a kind of multi-dimensional "framing" experience of the reading to me, because I listened to many (though not all) of the tracks while reading your words. All kinds emotions arose -- much of it reflective and/or nostalgic, and/or revealing especially w/tracks I have not heard before; music, or even just the memory of music really brings forth empathic responses. Your words both echoed and contrasted with the lyrics, the sounds and rhythms that have been floating, circulating, through the air of our experience.
So, this is a book I'll come back to again and again. I've found it to be very rich, layered, provoking. Just in terms of me being an older reader, it was interesting to see the role of the "elder" in your text as also encompassing and presenting a lot of challenging -- and sometimes (often?) painful -- situations for younger pinay writers. There's a particular kind of generation gap at work here, and I want to think about that. And I'm also thinking about how strangely monolithic and constraining the role of elder can be in Pilipinx society, especially for the pinay. Of course, younger pinay writers experience their own constraints and silencing too.
Anyway, thank you for writing this, and letting me read the mss.; I can see that a lot of blood, sweat, and tears -- and a lot of questioning -- went into it. It's a brilliant book. Basically, you kicked ass.
Jean Vengua is a Filipinx American artist and writer. From her "outpost" on the California coast, she focuses on art processes, the cultural contexts of art-making, and being an [older], self-taught artist during uncertain times. She creates the newsletter Eulipion Outpost to which you can subscribe.